On the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square, it’s appropriate to look at the extent to which Beijing has tried to spread two separate myths to two separate audiences.
It wants its own people to believe it never happened, and it wants the rest of the world to believe that the students had it coming.
Abroad there is defiance.
Over the weekend, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told an international conference in Singapore that the student gathering was a kind of riot, "political turmoil that the central government needed to quell."
Inside China, the government has tried its best to censor discussion of Tiananmen altogether.
Late last year, the government began a crackdown on Twitter users who posted criticism of the government. A former leader of the 1989 protests was barred from traveling to Hong Kong to commemorate the anniversary.
Victor Mair, a Professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, told me that he has heard from a number of his former students in China that their virtual private network services have been suspended in recent days.
VPNs, as they are called, are used by citizens in authoritarian countries to bypass state censorship of the Internet. "I’m sure this is connected to the anniversary," he said, though officially the government has said it’s in retaliation for new U.S. tariffs.
"The Chinese government freaks out every year around this time."
As the journalist Louisa Lim wrote recently, the Chinese Communist Party has waged a kind of war against any mention of Tiananmen. The episode is erased from official histories. Websites that document it are blocked.
This is what dictatorships do. The Soviet Union would delete the entries of disfavored officials from official encyclopedias. The official Egyptian museum commemorating its lost 1973 war with Israel portrays it as a military victory.
What makes the threat from China particularly dangerous, however, is that the Chinese are amassing the power to shape the collective memory of the rest of us as well.
They are not yet there. But China’s quest to own pieces of the world’s digital infrastructure as well as social media platforms threatens to make the free world’s internet as stifling as the one China imposes on its own citizens.
It’s not just China’s push for Huawei to help build 5G wireless networks around the world. China’s ByteDance owns the popular social media platform TikTok, which is popular among the West’s youngest web users.
A Chinese gaming company now owns the popular gay dating app Grindr, although last month it relented to U.S. government pressure and agreed to sell the app within a year. China’s WeChat is rapidly expanding its market share in Europe and Asia for its easy-to-use program to pay for goods and services with a phone.
If China had learned the lessons of Tiananmen and met the demands of its people for more personal freedom, these developments would not be ominous. In open societies there is a demarcation between private business and the government.
This is not the case in China.
In 2017, the state enacted a new national intelligence law that compels private Chinese businesses to cooperate with the government. (U.S. companies have been known to cooperate, but at least they have choice.) This means that all of the data collected by Huawei, WeChat and TikTok can be stored and searched by China’s security services.
At the very least, this arrangement would give China leverage to bully Western companies to adhere to the kind of web censorship it imposes on its citizens at home.
It has already done this with U.S. technology companieswhen it comes to their Chinese products. At the worst, the arrangement would allow Chinese bureaucrats to mine the personal data of billions of non-Chinese citizens.
It’s a terrifying prospect. Fortunately, the U.S. has begun to address the threat.
It has launched a global campaign to persuade allies to block Huawei from participating in the building of national 5G networks. Last month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order prohibiting the purchase or use of communications technologies controlled by a foreign adversary.
The hope is that it’s not too late to save the Internet from a Chinese takeover. If it is, then the rest of the world could soon be subjected to the same war on history China now wages on its own people.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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